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October writer-in-residence Sehba Sarwar blogs about P&W-supported Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB), a Houston-based alternative arts organization. A writer and multidisciplinary artist, Sarwar uses her poetry, prose, and video/art installations to explore displacement and women’s issues on a domestic and global level. Her first novel, Black Wings, was published in 2004, and she is currently working on a second manuscript tentatively entitled "Island."

Sehba SarwarIn Pakistan, September 21, 2012, was marked as a day of remembrance for Prophet Mohammad in response to a film that went viral and sparked violence in parts of North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Knowing that the time difference between Houston and Pakistan was ten hours, I began checking online Pakistani newspapers as soon as I awoke. By the end of twenty-four hours, more than twenty people had been killed and six cinema houses had been burned. Meanwhile, progressive and secular communities that formed Pakistan’s majority were posting comments asking why extremists weren’t using their energies to offer help to the southern part of the country, where floods once again disrupted lives.

Two days after the protests, I received an e-blast from an Islamabad-based arts organization, Kuch Khaas, announcing screenings of selected best films from FilmSaar International Children’s Film Festival, and of course, in Karachi, T2F had resumed its regular programming. Life was returning to normal—something that must happen since flare-ups are part of daily living all around Pakistan.

More than ever, I appreciate that even though I’m based in Houston, I’ve woven my work so that I remain connected to alternative art and communities in Pakistan. The reality that I know is not reported in mainstream media. Sensationalist news always makes headlines, but I believe it’s also important to write about an independent arts organization screening children’s movies—despite the burning of cinema halls. Many organizations and independent artists in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, and Iraq continue to do the same, and their realities exist parallel to the deaths and protests that are reported to outside communities.

Through my work with Voices Breaking Boundaries, we create productions that juxtapose art and images from Pakistan and Houston so that our audience can find parallels between the two places. The purpose of these productions and workshops is to open space for innovative art from Karachi and Houston while also breaking down stereotypes about the issues we research. Further down the road, VBB is looking to expand research into other countries, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Mexico, so that our audiences can experience art from unexpected communities about issues that are largely unknown. Using digital space and live performances to create alternative productions is even more critical in these times, when divisions in the world are more fractured. As Patti Smith said, in her 2010 visit to Houston: “We create art to illuminate.” As artists and writers, it’s important for us to dig deeper beyond the surface news—all around the world.

Photo: Sehba Sarwar. Credit: Emaan Reza.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Houston 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.

On September 23, P&W-supported poet and creative nonfiction writer Luis Rodriguez gave a reading and talk at the Fullerton Public Library in Fullerton, California. P&W’s Andrew Wessels reports.

As Sunday afternoon temperatures climbed toward triple digits, a large crowd gathered in the comfortable confines of the Fullerton Public Library’s new Community Room. Families, teachers, and high school and college students waited for the arrival of Luis Rodriguez, author of Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. and director of Tía Chucha’s Centro Cultural, in Sylmar, California.

Greeted by applause following Gustavo Arellano’s introduction, Rodriguez began his reading neither with an excerpt from one of his books nor an anecdote about his life in particular. Rather, Rodriguez began by connecting his life and the lives of everyone in the audience to Homer’s Odyssey. The connection made, though, was to Odysseus’s son Telemachus rather than the famous hero. Rodriguez wanted to talk about the process of maturation and growth, the process of finding one’s way in life.

Rodriguez read from two segments of his newest book, It Calls You Back, about the incarceration of his oldest son and his own attempts to confront his failings as a father. The first excerpt told the story of his wife’s youth, in which she chose to break free of a patriarchal family situation and become disowned in order to move away for college. The second excerpt was from a letter his son wrote shortly after being released from prison, when he was looking to redeem himself in the same way Rodriguez did from his youthful failings.

The focus on youth and maturation was the major theme of the reading. Instead of giving a straightforward reading, Rodriguez focused his energy on delivering a message: one of help and healing rather than incarceration and punishment. As a reformed gang member whose subsequent life has been dedicated to fighting gang violence and developing opportunities for inner city at-risk youth, Rodriguez’s stories carried the weight of experience and triumph.

Throughout the event, Rodriguez peppered his anecdotes—of gang life, becoming a father, finding his writing voice, and being redeemed through the guidance of dedicated mentors—with two phrases: “You know what I’m getting at” and “You know what I’m saying.” The intonation of these phrases was simultaneously a question and a statement. This duality seemed to be at the heart of Rodriguez’s message, to be simultaneously open and forceful, accepting and strong. At the end of the question and answer session, Rodriguez challenged the entire audience to provide positive opportunities so that all youths can “pick their trouble” through reading and knowledge rather than streets, gangs, and violence.

As Rodriguez left the podium and made his way to the table to sign books, nearly the entire audience gathered in a line that almost encircled the Community Room. As Rodriguez signed books and spoke to each of his readers, it was clear that his words and his works had, like he asked from all of us, created “a space to fail, to heal, and to redeem.”

Photo: Luis Rodriguez (right) signs books for fans. Credit: Andrew Wessels.

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

The Natan Fund, a New York City-based foundation that supports Jewish nonprofit organizations and creative projects, has introduced a new award for nonfiction writers. The Natan Book Award will annually give a Jewish writer a prize of $50,000 for a work-in-progress.

The prize money will be given in two stages: an initial award of $15,000 will be given to an individual writer to support the writing process; the remaining amount will finance the book’s marketing and publicity. Nonfiction books on Jewish themes, written in English, which have an existing publishing contract with a recognized commercial or academic publisher, are eligible.

The Natan Book Awards are currently open for submissions. Authors or publishers may nominate books by December 3. Author and Atlantic Monthly staff writer Jeffrey Goldberg and New Republic journalist and editor Franklin Foer will co-chair the award committee, which will announce the winner in April 2013. 

At a recent celebration for the Natan Fund’s ten-year anniversary, New York Times columnist David Brooks announced the launch of the new award. “The Natan Book Award provides Natan a vehicle for bringing its support for creative and meaningful new initiatives into the intellectual arena,” Brooks said. “In ten years of grantmaking, Natan has helped to galvanize innovation across the Jewish and Israeli social sectors. The Book Award will leverage that experience on behalf of a gifted author with groundbreaking ideas.”

The Natan Fund seeks books that focus on issues of Jewish life, history, community, and identity for the twenty-first century, and which reflect “the changing notions of individual and collective Jewish identity” throughout the world.

According to the Natan website, the publisher of the selected book must agree to work with Natan on marketing and publicity strategies—however, the guidelines state, “the award is intended to complement, not replace, the publisher’s marketing efforts.” 

Since it was founded in 2002, the Natan Fund has awarded over 7.7 million dollars to 128 social entrepreneurs and emerging nonprofit organizations. Visit the website for complete submission guidelines and more information on the inaugural Natan Book Awards.

In the profile “Emma Straub’s Life in Letters” (Poets & Writers Magazine, September/October 2012), author Emma Straub reveals that the genesis for her novel Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures was an obituary she read about a woman named Jennifer Jones. After reading the obituary, she wrote a fictionalized account of her life. Follow Straub’s example: Read the obituary section of a newspaper, and write a story with a main character loosely based on what you find.

The Rona Jaffe Foundation has announced the winners of its 2012 Writers’ Awards. The annual awards honor six emerging women writers of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. Each winner receives $30,000.

This year’s recipients include poet Lauren Goodwin Slaughter of Birmingham, Alabama; fiction writers Julia Elliott of Cayce, South Carolina, Christina Nichol of Sebastopol, California, and Rachel Swearingen of Kalamazoo, Michigan; and creative nonfiction writers Kim Tingley of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Inara Verzemnieks of Iowa City.

The late novelist Rona Jaffe established the awards program in 1995, in order to support women writers in the early stages of their careers. Since then, the program has given more than one million dollars in prize money to over a hundred women.

“This is an extraordinary and ambitious group of women writers,” Beth McCabe, the director of the awards program, said in a press release of the 2012 winners. “They are original, inventive, provocative, and daring. They are taking risks, challenging conventions, and tackling their material with a sense of humor, brio, and confidence beyond their years.” 

Recipients of the awards are nominated by writers, editors, teachers, critics, and other literary professionals. A selection committee is appointed by the foundation annually, and all nominators and committee members remain anonymous. 

“All of our winners are working to complete their first books and for many this will be the first opportunity in their careers to free themselves temporarily from financial worries to focus on their writing,” McCabe added. “This is what Rona had always hoped to achieve with her program and it’s wonderful to see the impact it has had on these writers’ lives.” 

Rona Jaffe was the author of sixteen books. Her most recent novel is The Room-Mating Season (Dutton, 2003). Her first novel, The Best of Everything, originally published by Simon and Schuster in 1958, was reissued by Penguin in 2005, the year that Jaffe passed away.

Past winners of the awards have included writers such as Eula Biss, Rivka Galchen, ZZ Packer, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, and Tracy K. Smith. The 2012 winners will give a reading at New York University in New York City on September 21. For more information about the winners, and about the Rona Jaffe Writers’ Awards, visit the website

Choose a poem that needs revising and transform it into a Shakespearean sonnet—a poem of fourteen lines, arranged in three quatrains (a rhyming stanza of four lines) and one couplet (two rhyming lines). The end of every other line in each quatrain should rhyme (or sound similar), and the end of each line in the final couplet should also rhyme (or sound similar). Visit the Academy of American Poets website and search "sonnet" for examples.

Literary agent Wendy Weil, who founded of The Wendy Weil Agency in 1986, died suddenly at her home in Connecticut on September 22, 2012. Atlantic national correspondent and author James Fallows posted a brief remembrance of her online at the Atlantic: "Wendy Weil, who has been my literary agent on all the books I have written, died suddenly while doing what she did most often, and best—reading manuscripts."

The Wendy Weil Agency represents books by authors such as Andrea Barrett, Rita Mae Brown, Alice Fulton, Mark Helprin, and Philip Lopate.

October writer-in-residence Sehba Sarwar blogs about P&W-supported Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB), an alternative arts organization. A writer and multidisciplinary artist, Sarwar uses her poetry, prose, and video/art installations to explore displacement and women’s issues on a domestic and global level. Her first novel, Black Wings, was published in 2004, and she is currently working on a second manuscript tentatively entitled "Island."

Sehba SarwarThis month, as Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB) launches our thirteenth season, I’m reminiscing about Fall 1999, when my friend Marcela Descalzi asked if I wanted to do anything before the start of the next millennium. At that time, Houston offered few options for new writers, performance artists, and grassroots activists.

“I want to create a space for artists to share work about issues that matter to us,” I said. “I also want to perform a poem about political events unfolding in Pakistan, my home.”

We formed a collective, inviting three other women writers and artists—Christine Choi, Donna Perkins, and Jacsun Shah—to join us. Dedicating hours in coffee shops, we finally agreed on Voices Breaking Boundaries as our group’s name. Our logo was the globe viewed from the southern Hemisphere. We wanted to offer a new lens through which to experience the world and to create space for artists and audience members from different backgrounds to gather, share art, and learn from one another.

Without thinking of the outcome, I submitted a grant application to the Houston Arts Alliance and was awarded $4,500. We decided to use the funds to print postcards and pay honoraria to artists. Each of us was teaching at that time, so we didn’t pay ourselves even though we performed at the shows. During our first year, we created monthly lineups in a local bookstore, featuring performance poets, academics, high school students, capoeira dancers, and drummers. In February 2001, after our collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and Himal South Asia (Nepal) to offer a South Asian film festival, we knew we had to respond to our audience and incorporate VBB into a nonprofit arts organization.

VBB Living Room ArtFast forward to Fall 2012. I’m still writing and now draw a salary as VBB’s salaried artistic director. Over the years, VBB has received free performance and exhibition space and has collaborated with many other organizations, including Arté Publico Press, Project Row Houses, DiverseWorks, and Inprint, Inc., and has featured artists such as Arundhati Roy, Bapsi Sidhwa, and Patti Smith—all while continuing to tackle some of the most controversial issues of our times. We have carved a niche for our unique productions, living room art, through which we convert residential homes into art spaces and use the experience to create connections between Karachi, my home city, and Houston, where I’ve lived for some time. The productions, elaborate one night flares, meld spoken word, music, performance and videos with installations.

And around us, more communities of color and artist initiatives have sprung up. Any given weekend, one can cull from an array of choices to experience art. The city is “minority-majority,” serving as a prediction of demographic shifts across the United States. There’s still much work to be done and sometimes I feel challenged by how often we circle back to the same issues: immigrant rights, women’s reproductive rights, education awareness, racial stereotyping, and the United States' role in global conflicts. But at the same time, I’m grateful for the support VBB continues to receive from arts organizations like Poets & Writers. Looking back at 1999, I couldn’t have predicted where our collective would land. I do know, however, that in the wide expanse of Houston, the United States, and the world, there’s room for many more artist initiatives—and that our story speaks to the urgent need for more alternative voices to converge.

Photos: (Top) Sehba Sarwar. Credit: Emaan Reza. (Bottom) Fall 2011 living room art production Third Worlds: Third Ward/Karachi. Credit: Eric Hester.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Houston 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.

In early September, P&W-supported writers Alma García, Felicia González, and Emily Pérez read at Columbia City Gallery in Seattle as part of a collaboration between visual and literary artists. Project codirector Lauren Davis describes the event.

Rooted writersOn a hot summer evening in Seattle, four writers presented new works responding to Rooted: Latino/a Artists’ Connection to Native and Adopted Lands, an art exhibit at Seattle’s Columbia City Gallery. The exhibit, a partnership between Columbia City Gallery and La Sala, a nonprofit Latino/a artists’ network, brought together regional visual artists and writers exploring themes of roots, family, identity, and home.

“For those of us who migrate to a new home, we not only carry our culture and customs but also the sense that we are being, or have been by generations past, uprooted; replanted,” said Juan Alonso-Rodriguez, curator of Rooted. Inspired by the theme of the exhibit, writer Wendy Call invited José Carrillo, Alma García, Felicia González, and Emily Pérez to create new works responding to select artworks from the gallery exhibit.

The gathering crowd fanned themselves with gallery postcards while listening to flute music played by José Carrillo. Laughter filled the room as the crowd of artists, writers, observers, and people from the neighborhood welcomed each other. The Columbia City Gallery, a community-based arts cooperative, provides a vibrant arts center in the heart of South Seattle and supports a wide range of cultural programming for the diverse neighborhood.

As the final strains of music faded from the air, the writers gathered in front of the crowd with the Rooted art exhibit as their backdrop. First to read was Emily Pérez. Her poems “When Needed” and “Dear Dove” responded to paintings by artist Blanca Santander, images of dreamy earth goddesses rendered in bright colors. She finished her delicate set with the poem “Ambition,” inspired by images of clouds by photographer Eduardo Nuñez.

Boris Gaviria and Alma Garcia“Hello, my name is Alma García, and I’ll be your fiction writer tonight,” the next writer announced upon taking the floor. García, exploring a series of screen prints by Boris Gaviria, read the short story “Harvest,” which depicted a day in the life of Octavio and Licho, two apple-farm workers in eastern Washington. Gaviria’s crisp images of stacked apple crates and farm trucks gave illustration to the sights, sounds, and smells of the world García’s characters inhabited.

The next writer, Felicia González, stirred the muggy room by requesting the audience stand up and come closer to view a series of small drawings by Arturo Artorez. The group formed a semicircle around the artwork, while Gonzalez stood in the middle of the room and read her poem “Stranger in a Familiar Land.”

The evening concluded with the magnetic José Carrillo reading a suite of four short poems “Rooted: in Four Movements,” inspired by the works of painter Consuelo Murphy and printmaker Gloria Garcia.

At the Rooted reading, four writers brought visual artwork to life in new ways. Reciprocally, the artwork provided a focal point for listeners’ eyes while the spoken words transported their minds. The blend of words, art, music, and community was a perfect union on one of the last warm days of the Seattle summer.

Photos: (Top, from left to right) Writers Felicia González, Alma García, José Carrillo, and Emily Pérez. Bottom: Alma García (right) with artist Boris Gaviria, whose work is behind them. Credit: Donna Miscolta

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Seattle 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 annual Troubadour International Poetry Prize, sponsored by the London-based Coffee-House Poetry and Cegin Productions, is currently open for submissions. The grand-prize winner will receive £2,500, or approximately $4,050.

The contest is open to poets from any country over the age of eighteen. Poets may submit two copies of previously unpublished poems of up to forty-five lines each, written in English, with a £5 ($8) entry fee. Submissions are accepted via postal mail only, and payments can be made by mail or through PayPal. The deadline for submissions is October 15.

A second-place prize of £500 (approximately $810) and a third-place prize of £250 (approximately $405) will also be given. Winning poems may also be published on the Troubadour International Poetry Prize website. Jane Draycott, whose latest work is a translation of the fourteenth century poem Pearl (Carcanet, 2011), and Bernard O’Donoghue, whose most recent poetry collection is Farmers Cross (Faber & Faber, 2011), which was shortlisted for the 2011 T. S. Elliot Prize, will judge the contest.

Founded in 1997 by poet Anne-Marie Fyfe, Coffee-House Poetry is a weekly reading series held at the Troubadour, a writers’ and artists’ café in London. The series hosts readings by both emerging and established poets throughout the year, and has featured poets such as Billy Collins, David Constantine, Stephen Dobyns, Mark Doty, Helen Dunmore, Jorie Graham, Jane Hirshfield, Michael Rosen, C.K. Williams, and C.D. Wright, among many others. The series also hosts book discussions, literary magazine launches, craft classes, and workshops taught by poets such as Sharon Olds, Tom Sleigh, and Matthew Sweeney. Contest submission fees are used to help support the series.

Winners of the 2012 Troubadour Prize will be notified by November 19, and will be honored at Coffee-House Poetry at the Troubadour on December 3.

For more information on Coffee-House Poetry and complete submission guidelines, visit the Troubadour Poetry Prize website.

Sometimes our dreams tell a story about our lives. Think about a dream you’ve had—it could be a recent one, one that you recall from your past, or one that recurs. Write down the details of the dream as descriptively as your memory allows, focusing on imagery, narrative, characters, and any odd or distinct details you can recall. Once you’ve written a description, freewrite about what the images, characters, and details remind you of from your waking life. Then, using the material you've generated, write a short essay about the dream. What do you think it meant? What experiences or emotions did it represent? Did it seem real or otherworldly? How did it made you feel upon waking? For future dream analysis exercises, keep a dream diary by your bed and record your dreams first thing each morning.

Write a story composed entirely of letters from one character to another who never replies. The characters could know each other or could be complete strangers. For an example, read Claire Vaye Watkins's story "The Last Thing We Need" in her collection Battleborn (Riverhead Books, 2012).

Revisit one of your poems that needs revising, especially in terms of its length. Rewrite it on a postcard, including only what is most important, using the limited space of the postcard as your guide. When you've finished, consider mailing it to someone!

The Before Columbus Foundation has announced the winners of its thirty-third annual American Book Awards. The prizes are given for outstanding books of any genre that encompass themes of American diversity.

The winners are: Annia Ciezadlo for Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War (Free Press); Arlene Kim for What Have You Done to Our Ears to Make Us Hear Echoes? (Milkweed Editions); Ed Bok Lee for Whorled (Coffee House Press); Adilifu Nama for Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes (University of Texas Press); Rob Nixon for Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard University Press); Shann Ray for American Masculine (Graywolf Press); Alice Rearden for her translation Our Nelson Island Stories (University of Washington Press); Touré for Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? What It Means to Be Black Now (Free Press); Amy Waldman for The Submission (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); Mary Winegarden for The Translator’s Sister (Mayapple Press); and Kevin Young for Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels (Knopf).

Eugene B. Redmond, the poet laureate of East St. Louis, Illinois, received the Lifetime Achievement Award. The award follows his first American Book Award, which he received in 1993 for his poetry collection The Eye in the Ceiling (Harlem River Press). An emeritus professor of English and founding editor of Drumvoices Revue at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, Redmond has written seven books of poetry and one book of nonfiction, and his work has appeared in over a dozen magazines and anthologies.

The American Book Awards, established to “recognize outstanding literary achievement from the entire spectrum of America's diverse literary community,” have been given annually since 1978 to emerging and established writers, for books published in the previous year. Winners are nominated and selected by a panel of writers, editors, and publishers.

Founded in 1976, the Oakland, California-based Before Columbus Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion of contemporary American multicultural literature. “Recognizing literary excellence demands a panoramic perspective,” states the organization’s mission. “American literature is not one tradition but all traditions. From those who have been here for thousands of years to the most recent immigrants, we are all contributing to American culture. We are all being translated into a new language.”

The winners will be recognized on Sunday, October 7 at the University of California in Berkeley. The submission deadline for the 2013 American Book Awards is December 31. For complete guidelines and more information on the awards, visit the Before Columbus Foundation website. 

Brendan Constantine, September’s Writer in Residence, was born in 1967 and named after Irish playwright Brendan Behan. An ardent supporter of Southern California’s poetry communities, he is one of the region’s most recognized authors. He is currently poet-in-residence at the Windward School and regularly conducts workshops in hospitals, foster homes, and with the Art of Elysium. His latest collections of poetry are Birthday Girl With Possum (2011 Write Bloody Publishing) and Calamity Joe (2012 Red Hen Press). He lives in Hollywood, California, at Bela Lugosi’s last address.

Brendan Constantine at HillsidesHow do you do? Brendan Constantine here with my last blog as “writer in residence” for P&W. Thanks for visiting with me today.

A while ago, I came across this comment in response to an L.A. Daily News article about efforts to appoint L.A.’s first poet laureate: “The economy is in shambles, people are looking for work and the city wants to hire a poet? This is the most absurd thing I have ever heard of! I am so glad that I moved away from Los Angeles!”

Wow. How do we begin to respond to that? How does a poet help a city? Isn’t it a waste of time and resources when people are desperate? Why do we need poets at all?

Those are worthy topics. But in the days since the story appeared I’ve noticed something else. Many of the poets I know have, or have had, reservations about identifying as such. Some of them seem to have internalized the prejudice displayed in the opening quote. More about that in a moment.

First, let’s face it, the term “poet” is pretty laden (indeed, even “leaden”) with associations. Even after I’d begun to write poetry in earnest, I shrunk from using the title. It sounded like bragging, or worse, likening myself to the most extreme stereotypes of self-absorption. To call myself a poet was like telling people I made a career of being tragically misunderstood.

Yesterday I had lunch with poet Mindy Nettifee. Like all the poets mentioned in this post, she’s received grants from the Readings/Workshops program to present her work—meaning that, on some level, she’s publicly owned the title of “poet.” But when I asked her if she’d ever had reservations about it, she said, “Are you kidding? I still sometimes feel like I’ve just told people I’m a really famous mime in Texas.” I laughed out loud for five minutes.

Today I started calling poets I knew and asked the same question. I caught poet Kim Addonizio in an airport—come to think of it, I never asked where she was going, oh well—and she said that for her, the title of poet was something that had to be deserved. Writing one poem wasn’t enough. Writing two or three was still tourism. “I had to earn my stripes,” she said.

But there’s no day that stands out as the one when she knew she’d crossed a line into the territory of legitimacy. She just noticed that she had been calling herself a poet.

“It’s a ridiculous thing to call yourself,” says poet Doug Kearney. “I mean, what does it actually say about what you do? A painter’s title contains a verb. So does ‘singer’ or ‘sculptor,’ ‘dancer,’ etc…. But a poet is a...what...a poem-er?”

Kearney does identify as a poet and began to do so around the time of his fellowship with Cave Canem, a renowned writer’s conservancy with a focus on African-American authors. At some point in his residency, being daily in the company of other poets who regarded him as one of them, he passed through an initiation. But again, he noticed only in retrospect.

So what’s the big deal already? Do you call yourself a poet? There’s no shame in it, is there? No licenses to practice, no tribe with the power to vote you off an island. Do you have associations with the term (or expect others will) that give it a bad light?

Poet Julianna McCarthy, who happens to be my mom, has been writing poetry for quite some time. She has a degree and body of published work. And yet, this evening, she said over the phone, “I still can’t do it. I have to change the syntax so that instead of saying I’m a poet, I say ‘I write poetry.’”

This isn’t going to end cleanly, by the way. I don’t have any answers and I’m not blaming poets for opinions like the one appearing at the top of this post.  I will say that whatever it is about poetry that inspired such passionate criticism may be related to whatever it is that stops some of us from going public.

In my first post I said: “People invent poetry as a means of expressing something they can’t easily say. The desire to talk about special things in a special way, the desire to change, elaborate, or deliberately misuse language for the purpose of greater communion is all but universal.”

I wish to add that when I say “people” I don’t necessarily mean poets. Poetry predates the job of poet. In ancient Greece and Rome, the words for poetry refer to something “made,” a thing, even a formula. In Arabic cultures it can mean to “ask” or inquire. It may also mean to “perceive.” In China and later Japan, poems are “sacred words,” “temple words.”

Who needs temple words? Everyone outside the temple. Who needs to ask or perceive? Anyone who would answer, who would face another questioner. Who needs to make a thing out of words? Anyone unmade by speechlessness.

Photo: Brendan Constantine talks with young poets at Hillsides in Pasadena, California. Credit: Nicola Wilkens-Miller

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

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